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A Love Letter to Khao Soi
A soup that has stolen my heart
Dear Khao Soi,
How the fuck are you so delicious?
I’m sorry, that was crass and rude. No, Hi, how are you? No, I hope you’re as spicy as ever. I don’t know what’s come over me. A dish such as yourself should be spoken to with reverence, not brashness—but I just can’t contain myself.
Your flavors leave me feeling some type of way. Dumbfounded, may be the right word. Gobsmacked, perhaps. Truly, you are a work of exquisite culinary beauty and balance. You hold so much depth and flavor and texture for a soup with such an ambiguous and generic name.
But I’ve come to learn and admire the generality of your name as a mark of your overwhelming influence. You don’t need a unique name for people to conjure up your taste and image. You’re so significant and iconic that you can simply be called “street food”.1 In many ways, what you embody is the hallmark of tasty Thai street food at its best—and, still, something entirely monumental all its own.
When I learned that you were the quintessential dish of northern Thailand—the dish of the city of Chiang Mai, in particular—I was intrigued, excited. Brooks spoke so highly of you. But I can’t lie to you, Khao Soi; despite the words of one of your many enthusiasts, my first thought was, How good could you actually be? (I’m a soup lover and have high expectations, you see.)
Well, you didn’t disappoint. You are good.
No, you’re not just good. You are fucking amazing.
That first bite/slurp of you has been known to elicit tears. I’ve seen those tears of pure joy. I’ve shed those tears, when that first spoonful of your broth touched my lips and coated my tongue.
Since hanging out in Chiang Mai, I’ve had many versions of you over the last couple months. More curry-forward broths, more coconut-milk-bodied broths. One broth I tried was almost honey-sweet, its curry almost akin to Indian yellow curry in flavor yet, somehow, still watery-er, nearly flavorless. (I don’t associate that one with the real you, don’t worry). My first version of you, though, my first taste of Khao Soi was…well, not dazzling. It was at a Michelin restaurant and the soup arrived…cold.2 For all the flavor you hold, I have to level with you: you are not very good when you get cold. Still, I could taste your potential and had no trouble imagining the specialness you'd deliver when done just right and served hot. With that first bowl, my interest was piqued, and I set out determined to find the best version of you, to taste you at your pinnacle of excellent. And I found it.3
My favorite version of you thus far is at…(drum roll, please!)…Khao Soy Maesai, located in the Nimman neighborhood of Chiang Mai.
Oh boy. Where do I even start?
On most days, throngs of people wait outside the small, open-aired establishment to receive a pager and wait to be seated at one of the few metal or wooden tables and stools, all numbered to try to organize and corral the plethora of hungry mouths—tourists and locals alike—that come to dine. (The level of organization and crowd control that Khao Soy Maesai employs was one of the first signs that we were in the right place, sure to receive a bowl of wonderful.)
Every time we visit Khao Soy Maesai, there’s a line of eat-in patrons waiting and a line of Linemen and Grab guys waiting to deliver to-go orders to hungry patrons elsewhere.4 Among the chatter, fans oscillate left to right to desperately try and circulate the air as people sit, slurp, and shuffle in and out and vats of broth bubble away. Unless you look utterly helpless, you aren’t informed of the order of operations to secure a table and order; so, needless to say, there was a bit of a learning curve when we first tried to enter the queue. No one ever gatekeeps newbies from tasting the taste bombs being ladled out at this Khao Soi powerhouse, though. A kind patron or one of the restaurant workers—likely the young man with some of the best-looking calves I’ve ever seen—will guide confused patrons in English and Thai.
At this point in the game, we’ve gone to Khao Soy Maesai so many times that the process is now second nature to us. Our salivating mouths and thumping hearts guide us to:
Get the pager and prepare to sweat while waiting. (Sometimes we help a new lost soul, too.)
Jump for joy when we see the red light and feel the buzz of the pager in our hands.
Sit down and grab a pencil and slip of paper provided to write our order: #1 x 2 (Khao Soi Gai) and 1 iced Roselle tea.5
Hand our order off to the man with the stellar calf muscles or one of the ladies, or simply pierce it on the ticket holder ourselves.
Wait with sweat-slicked faces for the hot soup that will further warm our insides and then inevitably cool us down.
Slurp with reckless abandon.
Pay a criminally low price for a five-star meal.6
Dream of our next bowl as we see the next set of hungry patrons take over our seats.
Recently, when we visited Khao Soy Maesai on another 100-degree day (yes, it’s that hot in Chiang Mai right now), we didn’t even have to order. One of the aproned women, who minds the many vats of your beautifully orange-red broth and ladles you into bowls and bags to-go, knew exactly what we wanted. (That’s when you know you’ve made it.) She brought us two piping hot bowls of you, dear Khao Soi, and we grabbed our wooden chopsticks and metal soup spoons from the metal utensil caddy to dig right in with the ceremony you deserve.
First, we separated the fall-off-the-bone, pressure-cooked and broth-simmered chicken meat from the drum stick,7 taking care to mix it into the sweet, spicy coconut-curry broth that also holds perfectly al dente egg noodles and is topped with fried wonton strips and cilantro. Oh, the fried wonton strips! The ones at Khao Soy Maesai are perfectly fried and seasoned; a lot of noodle shops and stalls have soggy ones (the fault of that likely being humidity, to be honest) or ones that are too thin or not seasoned enough. But the ones at Khao Soy Maesai—just wow! The crunch is unmatched. And then there is the cilantro. Only a couple of the Khao Soi places we’ve visited sprinkle on this extra garnish, and I don’t understand why it’s not a part of Khao soi canon. The cilantro adds a certain brightness and herbaceous notes that perfectly complement and cut that rich curry broth of yours.
Next, we add in your faithful accoutrements: some sliced baby red onions or shallots, a big serving of pickled green cabbage, and the juice of one lime wedge. The red onion adds a spicy, allium flavor (a little goes a long way, in my opinion; the onions are so strong that sometimes I even forgo them all together). The pickled green cabbage has wilted, salty leaves and the core maintains an exceptional crunch. How they pickle this cabbage is a mystery to me, but it is a side I’ve seen sold in pressure-sealed packaging in the Thai grocery stores here in the North. It’s clearly popular and something special—something that belongs with Khao Soi for good reason. Don’t skip on this add-in! Finally, the lime. You gotta squeeze a wedge or two of island sunshine into that unctuous curry broth. This trio of garnishes adds the punch and zing that takes it all to the next level. As for other seasonings or add-ins that sit in the usual condiment caddy: I say don’t bother. These are for other soups and dishes.8 You, oh-so-tasty Khao Soi, come with the only Three Musketeers of add-ons one needs and all the flavor one hopes for in their dreams.9
Oh, Khao Soi, you are one of a kind. Some dishes deliver their flavors, particularly their spiciness, in waves that first tickle eaters’ tongues before swiftly dropkicking them in the back of the throat, but you—somehow your broth manages to disperse the spice and intertwines all the levels and layers of the five taste elements in one go. The balance and consistency of your broth is what an aspiring—even a professional!—saucier dreams of achieving. The Khao Soi ladies and gentlemen that build you up are sauce magicians that can never be beat. How they manage to concoct you and simmer you to your ideal state is beyond me. And I relish in the mystery.
Trying to describe your flavor and the levels of umami, sweet, salty, bitterness, creaminess, acidity, and spice that you coat my tongue with feels blasphemous. Try as I might to describe you for others, the truth is, they just have to taste you for themselves. But you’re not easy to find. Now having met you, I don’t recall coming across your name in any Thai restaurant in the States—even a super authentic one. Hell, now having spent time in different parts of Thailand, I haven’t found you anywhere outside of the northern region!
And, you know what? That’s probably a good thing.
I don’t want anyone trying to recreate you. They’ll just butcher your perfection, dissect you beyond recognition in the process of trying to recreate you. Your marriage of flavors is a special union, one that can’t be replicated.
Oh, but in a few months, when I’m feeling a little homesick for Thailand, I may need to bust out a packet of your curry paste and noodles and try to recreate you myself.10 I cringe thinking about how I’ll likely fail, ruin your memory in trying to summon your flavors in my own Western kitchen, but you’re that good...I’ll have to try.
Khao Soi, you’ve awoke my tastebuds, strengthened my spice tolerance, challenged my bowels, and stolen my heart. In the next couple of weeks, before I head back to Bland Land, I’ll be eating as much of you as my bowels can handle. (As tasty as you are, and as well as you balance your spice profile, there’s no denying that you are one spicy motherfucker.)
I’ll miss you when I leave, but I’ll always carry the shadow of your spice on my lips and the memory of you in my heart. I’ll be back for you again, someday, no doubt.
Another Khao Soi Convert
Khao soi (which is spelled phonetically) literally translates to just “street [soi] food [khao]”.
Michelin restaurants here (not Michelin-star restaurants, just Michelin recommended restaurants) are a bit of a crap shoot. We think some establishments just use the stickers to draw tourists in, while others are actually legit. Funny enough, our favorite Khao Soi place, Khao Soy Maesai, is apparently a Michelin restaurant. More importantly, though, it is a Chiang Mai Eats-awarded restaurant: that accolade is the one to look for when eating in Chiang Mai.
In my incredibly brief stint exploring TikTok, I came across an account that was rating three of the best Michelin Khao Soi places in Chiang Mai to eat at for under 100 Baht (or something like that). Khao Soi Maesai was one of them; we tried the other two, too, and they were just alright. So, as much as I hate TikTok, gotta shout it out for helping us find this gem, which, serendipitously enough, was hidden right around the corner from one of the cafes we frequent in our neighborhood. (Spoiled, we are!)
Line and Grab are to Thailand like Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash are to the U.S. The cooks at Khao Soy Maesai are always slinging to-go orders, bagging the broth and then bagging the noodles, the crispy strips, and all the toppings separately. They have it down to a science.
Gai translates to “chicken”. Roselle tea is equally as beautiful as it is delicious. It’s a gorgeous cranberry-purple color and its flavor profile is like sweetened cranberry juice meets rose tea. Once, I ventured out and tried another dish at Khao Soy Maesai: a pork soup with rice noodles in a clear broth with herbs. Light and delicious. It was good and I wasn’t surprised because clearly this restaurant knows what they’re doing when it comes to soup. But still, it was no Khao Soi.
A bowl is just 50 Baht (equal to roughly $1.44) Insane!! And the tea is something around 90 Baht. A full meal for two for around $5.00. Gosh, how I’ll miss it…
The chicken in Chiang Mai, and really Thailand all around, is some of the freshest chicken I’ve ever had. It has so much flavor and is so tender. I reckon it’s a combo of lots of farms nearby, which makes for fresher chicken being served, and cooks who know just how to cook it since chicken’s a staple animal protein here.
In the condiment caddy that rests on nearly every restaurant, street stall, and food shop table in Thailand, you’ll usually find some or all of these items: sugar, dried chili, a chili paste, crushed peanuts, fish sauce, vinegar, and/or some pickled garlic and/or chilies in vinegar. You learn which add-ins compliment what dishes. Experiment, have fun with them!
Along with the three traditional toppings, Brooks does like to add some crushed peanuts on top, too, which I can imagine compliments the flavors and textures nicely.
At one spice market in particular, I clocked a Khao Soi kit that includes the noodles, curry paste, and a recipe for Khao Soi. Tempted to buy one and bring it home for when the Khao Soi craving inevitably hits. (Don’t worry, Joe: I haven’t forget my promise to smuggle you one back.)